|"So I went on the set and the first thing that I remember is that there was this big truck outside and then I saw the cables which were like, umbilical, and you found the set by following the cables and it was like...'wow'. And then you arrived in a room and it was full of light and I fell in love."
Director Luc Besson on his first visit to a movie set
Post-apocalyptic movies occupy a special place in my heart. There's something about the behaviour of people violently stripped of civilisation that interests me. The scenario is at once a nobility barometer and a bell jar of barbarity. Whether it's Mel Gibson driving trucks full of sand across vast desert expanses, a young Don Johnson with his talking dog or the horrifying banality of Peter Watkins' kitchen sink faux documentary, there's something about an 'end of the world' scenario that presses my buttons including the big one that was probably pressed before the world went up in smoke. After a good buzz from the press at the time, I wandered in to see Luc Besson's debut feature and came out thinking "Now, there's someone to watch..." Like all first movies, Le Dernier Combat was to be made on the cheap (it cost a four hundredth of a Transformers and is five hundred times better) and designed to take advantage of what was freely available, a post nuclear war mess – not the hardest thing to design. The decision was also made to render everyone in the movie dumb (as in speechless, not stupid). I sometimes quote from the reviewed movie but in this case there are only two words. They both occur in the stand out emotional punch moment of the film and more on that later.
So Combat, stripped of language, becomes a classy exercise to simply tell a story cinematically with the help of stark black and white photography and a lovingly framed 2.35:1 cinemascope aspect ratio. Survival's the game. Water's the gold and women? The movie tells you a lot about this particular society within the first minute. Our hero is humping a sex doll, itself a deflating experience as it turns out. Talk about setting the tone. Identified as only 'the man' on the IMDB (actors' names are credited in the movie but not their roles), Pierre Jolivet is the loner in the skyscraper surrounded by miles of sand. He seems to be making something technical and goes out on raids to get whatever he needs to complete it. Living inside a cluster of abandoned cars is the Captain and his men who have enslaved a smaller man, the only one among them little enough to squeeze through narrow tunnels and find water in an underground cache.
It's a curious arrangement and because there is no dialogue, conclusions as to what, why and how are left to you, the audience. What is the significance of cutting off fingers? Some sort of aggressive calling card? How leaders show off their superiority? The first thing the man claims back from the Captain is presumably his own finger (on a finger necklace, charming) as he stuffs it back in his glove. Besson doesn't give us a close up and perhaps expects too much of us to notice that the man had only four fingers on his left hand. The fact he wears a glove throughout may make that point clearer. But this is half the fun of the movie – working stuff out for yourself. Remember, there's no dialogue save two words and this aspect (debilitating for any other movie) gives Combat a much more curiously interactive life. Your conclusions sit on the shoulders of other conclusions and it's a small irony that the title's promise adds up to two brief skirmishes between two men. The bulk of this film is the man surviving and as such it's a treat that this never becomes dull or repetitive. It's far too interesting a world, or end of the world that Besson has created.
It seems the man needs one more piece for his project to be completed and in a surprise moment coming quite early, he does something that makes him unsympathetic in the extreme. We know little of the Captain or his men (maybe he's a 'bad guy' because of the prisoner he keeps) but it's not enough for me to want him viciously stabbed as our hero does just before nicking his car battery. It's a curious move for a very curious movie. We are invited very strongly to find the man our hero (Jolivet is a good looking actor but beyond that it's simply his continual presence that marks him out as the guy to root for). A little later we find out who's the real bad guy, known in the IMDB credits as 'The Brute'. No guesses who plays that role. Take a bow, Monsieur Jean Reno. But we are strongly tempted to be ambivalent at best until about halfway when we settle in and find the man, the underdog, in serious trouble.
As Jolivet arrives at a broken down hotel, he finds a bar and proceeds to do what any sane person might do in similar circumstances; get hideously and gloriously plastered. It's a moment of empathy that everyone can connect with. Setting up a living space in the lobby, he's soon on the hunt for provisions, an act that brings him into painful contact with the Brute. Besson's fight scenes are well staged if a trifle theatrical. In the early 80s, we hadn't got around to mirco-cutting hand to hand combat. Hell, MTV was an infant in 1983 and hadn't yet taken the craft of editing and smashed it to smaller pieces in its relentless mission to stop you turning over to another channel. Thanks to a well placed manhole, our hero escapes to recuperate. But the Brute is patient and anxious to break into the hospital after leaving valuable trinkets to gain entry. Twice he's been denied by the sole occupant, a man known as 'the doctor' played with a light air of civility and poise by Besson favourite, Jean Bouise. In fact, Nikita is dedicated to the actor who died before Nikita was released.
After the Brute's first attack, Bouise befriends Jolivet, stitches him up and nurses him back to health. It's soon after this that Bresson conjures up a little piece of magic. It's never explained why vocal chords are not working but it seems you can usher some stuttering life into them by inhaling a gas. The two men, by dint of simple human compassion for an injured soul, have enough gas and physical ability to make one word resonate. Both men with impeccable manners chose the simple but powerful "Bonjour!" it's a lovely moment. The doctor will not give up his civility nor his manners even when the world is at the edge. He's keeping a very potent secret and slowly he reveals it to the man who is blindfolded and is being groomed for something (something we figure out happily on our own which I won't reveal).
The two are fortified inside what may have been a hospital but it doesn't take long for the Brute to find a way in and make our heroes' lives a trial. There are no great surprises or shocks in the film as you gradually pick up the pieces that Bresson has airily thrown away in his mise-en-scene but the journey is an intriguing one. I have one niggle which may have been genius on Besson's part. I've mentioned before that Eric Serra is an integral part of Besson's oeuvre. The Big Blue would not be The Big Blue without Serra's score. And so we go back to their very first collaboration and I have an idea how the brief might have gone.
LB: Eric, I want a sparse score, one that no one would have come up with for a film like this.
ES: You mean I have free reign to do whatever I like?
LB: Go nuts.
With no exceptions, Le Dernier Combat has the most ridiculous movie score I've ever heard. Some of it sounds like improvised jazz electronica and it seems to be in world of its own and the movie it's attached to, just an afterthought. Everything that shouldn't have worked in The Big Blue which did by some accident or talent fails spectacularly for Combat. There are some points where you think it's lift muzak. Now I may be missing the point here. Perhaps this dislocation of music and movie was part of Besson's overall plan but even if that's the case and he succeeds in what he set out to do, I still think that a traditional score would have upped the ante a little bit. There's nothing wrong with drama and there's nothing wrong with ramping the drama up. Serra's score for Combat is one from a young composer finding his feet and managing to locate a few toes. He was 25 years old so presumably inexperienced at movie scoring. I'm not having a go at him personally (I raved over his contribution to Blue), just pointing out something that may occur to you when you settle in and watch the otherwise excellent Le Dernier Combat.
As the oldest film in this new collection of Luc Besson Blu-ray transfers, I was prepared to cut it the most slack, expecting there to be issues with film grain, print condition and even sharpness, particularly given the low production budget. It's not a bad way to go into this disc, as then the surprise – nay, shock – you get when the film starts is twice as effective. I've heard it said that black and white is sometimes even better served by Blu-ray than colour, and right here is the evidence in support of that view. This is a frankly gorgeous transfer in every respect, with a lovely tonal range, unwaveringly perfect black levels and a superb level of detail – this is one of those HD transfers where you catch yourself counting individual stones on quarry wide shots or admiring the texture of a metallic surface that would previously have been little more than a shade of grey. Grain is certainly visible but is finer than expected and in no way intrudes, and while you could argue that the contrast is a tad on the strong side, this genuinely looks to be deliberate. Just occasionally there's a trace of flicker to the print, but it's a supremely clean one with hardly a dust spot to be seen. If you've only ever seen the film on a cropped TV or tape print, then the scope transfer here will be a revelation. Oh how I wish we were able to grab screens to illustrate.
The PCM 48 stereo soundtrack has also been given a makeover, giving a precision clarity to every sound effect and, if you cheat and redirect the bass through your subwoofer, some serious kick to some the deeper rumbles and the darker tones of Serra's score (more on this below).
Only a Trailer (1:57), which is 576p, letterboxed and looks as if it's been rescued from tape, but is intriguing for selling the film as a retrospective disdovery for audiences who missed it the first time around, working backways from Nikita to the film it's selling, trading more on the reputation of its director than the qualities of the film itself.
Perhaps not as instantly appealing as the director's high profile later works, Le Dernier Combat requires more patience, but the rewards really are there. Even when you share this opinion, however, be ready to argue about the fine detail. I, for example, am a big fan of the minimalist elements of Eric Serra's score, whose deep notes, heartbeat percussion and electronic abstractions seem to me perfectly suited to the other-worldliness of the setting, and while I share Camus's dislike for the freeform and muzak jazz elements (the music that accompanies a late-film chase is all wrong), the latter is sometimes diegetic, played on cassette recorders within scenes and twice terminated by the characters, once when Jean Reno's machine chews up the tape. Either way, this is far and away the best looking and sounding version of the film ever to hit the home video market, and despite the lack of extra features just has to come recommended for that alone.